Thursday, 8 October 2009


I recently got an e-mail from Waterstone's in response to my online job application for a position as a Bookseller at Westwood Cross. Forgive me for sounding snooty, but considering I have a degree and had to devour a mountain of books during my time at university, I thought I'd be quite at home at Waterstone's and would at least get to the interview stages, but alas, it was not to be:

Dear Luke, Thank you for applying to join our team at Waterstone's. We have carefully considered your application and regret that we have no suitable vacancies to match your skills and experience at this time. Thank you for your interest in Waterstone's and we wish you every success in your search for suitable employment. Yours sincerely, Waterstone's Resourcing Team.

Needless to say, this isn't the first time I've been rejected via e-mail. But I'm beginning to get fed up with being rejected by employers for no other reason than the results of stupid questionnaires which have no bearing upon my ability to actually do the job. You see, when I applied for the Waterstone's vacancy, I was prompted to fill out an in-depth online questionnaire asking me a wide range of psychological questions designed to assess my character traits, my decision-making abilities and (I assume) my flaws.

Hand anyone those questionnaires and I'm sure a vast majority of you will give a few duff answers, largely because they rephrase and repeat the same questions on different pages to deliberately trip you up, making you forget what you answered originally, not to mention asking you trick questions which fool you into ticking the wrong boxes. Now, there's nothing wrong with normal questionnaires, don't get me wrong, but these ones rather slyly target psychology and aptitude, so it's all cloaked and disguised in ulterior motives.

If everybody were robots I'm sure we'd all get 100% at these tests, but we're not robots, we're individuals. Each person can look at those personality questionnaires and answer each question differently, based purely upon subjectivity and opinion, so for employers to dismiss applicants on the basis of a 'wrong answer' on these questionnaires is deeply underhand and immoral. In my opinion, the answers people can give on these tests are not an accurate indicator of how psychologically suitable a job applicant is, and to pretend otherwise is just unmitigated nonsense.

I believe they're professionally referred to as Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) assessments. It's a craze that's swept the corporate world by storm, but if you trace its history deeper, the horrifying truth is that MBTI's originated from a theory on 'psychological types' proposed by famous psychologist Carl Jung. Never afraid of co-opting psychological techniques to tap into the ideals of marketing and big business, the likes of Tesco (and even, from personal experience, the Royal Mail) use different variants of MBTI's when they recruit new workers.

Some may fail to see a problem with businesses using MBTI's, but I distrust them intensely. My main reason for disliking them is that they are designed with a 'perfect candidate' in mind (i.e. questionnaires are engineered so only those who fit in with Tesco's preference for a 'psychological type' are eventually interviewed and selected). In short, it's a deeply impersonal method of filtering applicants, and that's why I despise them, mainly because they don't honour an employee's individuality, initiative, or the unique qualities they could potentially bring to the job, nor do they take into account prior qualifications or experience. Besides, some researchers and academics have also begun to question the accuracy and validity of MBTI's. The Skeptic's Dictionary website also gives a comprehensive overview on the legitimacy of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

I mean, whatever happened to interviewing prospective candidates based on their C.V.'s and hiring one of them after face to face meetings? Has the idea of hiring somebody based on the interviewer's personal impression vanished? At least then you could gauge the suitability of job applicants more accurately, rather than the farcical notion of running questionnaire results through a PC and saying “Computer says no,” potentially losing your company a future asset. I think that's why I felt compelled to write about it – MBTI's are inherently undemocratic – and their usage doesn't make it any easier for the unemployed to get jobs, even though some of those who fail the tests would probably make far better workers than those who pass with flying colours.

I thought I'd mention this because it's not the first time I've had to undergo a MBTI, and sadly it probably won't be the last. I reckon they should be scrapped. In my view, it's just as much a local concern as a national one. After all, job seekers all across the land will be aware of MBTI's as an unfortunate fact of life when you apply for jobs, so it's just as relevant to the 3,970 unemployed people in Thanet (of which I am unfortunately one) as it is to everyone else. Sadly, however, I can't imagine local MPs lobbying businesses and telling them what they can and cannot do, so I guess we'll just have to put up with it. But I don't think we should disguise how unnecessary and unfair MBTI's truly are. Does anyone agree, or am I just a lone voice in the wilderness?


  1. I see your point Luke, but MBTI's et al are just one tool that employers use, and they are usually pretty accurate - not necessarily to define your personality type - but to see how you would fit in with an existing team.

    And from the response from Waterstones it looks like they are saying you are way too overqualified for the min wage job they ... Read morehave, and would probably leave in a few months or as soon as a 'better' job came through, leaving them to start the recruitment process all over again...

    I would be very interested to hear someone from Waterstones comment though :)

  2. So would I, Pete, and trust me, I've been dealt the "you're overqualified for this job" line in previous interviews. It's strange how people are encouraged to go to university and end up less better off as a result. I'm only going for the min wage jobs because there don't seem to be many higher paid jobs out there willing to take on graduates. It's a strange state of affairs.

    As for MBTI's, with respect to you, I still think they're unnecessary. Maybe they're nothing to worry about it, but I still find them a bit suspicious. Still, as you say, it'd be nice to get someone from Waterstones to comment. :)

  3. MBTI when used in this way are a cop out. They are a way of filtering out creative people and change bringers. As a side note they will usually filter out anyone that registers on the Autistic spectrum at all. So that is 50% of entrepreneurs and almost all artists.

    As a result if you could prove that these tests filter out all aspergus or dyspracsics then you would have a good disability discrimination case. Sooner or later this is what will happen.

    Get a really cleaver solicitor and the brown stuff could realy hit the spinny thing.

    MBTI are far more valuable for assesing the balance of a current team and identifying creative and anchar managers - the first being good at solving problems the second at uncreatively following orders.

    The problem is that the pointy haired bosses of this world are terrified that the rank and file might be better than they are. Result filter out the competition before they start.

    It's all part of what I call the dinosaur business ethic which is a sure fire way to letting the next generation roar past you and leave you as a historical footnote.

    Talking of footnotes please don't force me to use OpenID Google/Blogger no longer support it correctly and make a mess of my name/link. Any chance of name/URL which aint broke?

  4. Well, the use of psychometric testing in any situation is about as useful as astrology... any large corporation that uses them can look back at previous staff and say ooh - we had a lot of Capricorn's and Leo's that were good at this job, so we will hire them if we can in the future. Meredith Belbin has done a lot of work on teams and their structure and his work is being used to influence these tests, which hopefully will lead to better accuracy.

    Also, if you know what the company is looking for, you can easily lie.. I have experience with these types of tests, and it is quite easy to make your profile fit any job if you know how. :)

    MBTI's are used (and I would say useful) as decision making tools - why? because junior people in large corporations hate making decisions! You said in your FB message "Businessmen should be enterprising and create profit, not mess around with debatable psychological mumbo-jumbo" but you forget - you aren't dealing with business people - you are dealing with the traffic wardens of the corporate world!! (assistant) branch managers who revel in the power they possess! Which is another reason these tests are used - to limit these peoples ability to inflict damage on the company by hiring people like them!

    With these tests they can then cover their ass if the employee goes on a gun-toting rampage and nicks all the cash :s It also gives managers something to talk to you about in an interview - better than 'tell me about your hobbies' and that sort of thing and because most people (interviewees) take them seriously, they are more likely to give honest answers - it is more about psychology and the way employers use the tests than the tests themselves.

    Put yourself in the role of an employer - current figures show something silly like 100 people applying for every job - there has to be a way of filtering people - you can't spend the time interviewing 100 candidates - and lets face it - a lot probably will be overqualified and looking to leave as the market picks up and some applying as they have to - dole ponces and the like ensuring they can retain their social money.

    I have heard (first hand) of much more arbitary methods of selection - CV's with a photo - bin, CV's in a brown envelope - bin - managers literally dividing the stack in 2 and throwing away half without reading them - and this was pre-credit crunch. Any company that was publicly exposed doing this would be in trouble - again - a 'good' reason for these tests - at least there is some vague basis for scientific measure there, as opposed to the whim of some random person.

    If it is true that MBTI's help filter out entrprenerial candidates (comment above), that is probably a bonus - i consider myself to be entreprenerial and the fact is I hate working for large corporations where everything is done 'because thats the way we are told to' or 'thats the way it has always been'.. Which actually adds credence to their usage (IMHO)!

    In addition, it is a good way of reducing the numbers of people applying - it is only if you are serious about the job you are going to spend 10-20 minutes filling out the test, the form, the cover letter etc, etc.

    I understand your frustration, and believe me, I share your feelings - and most positions I have applied for haven't even had the courtesy to send me the reply you got! but don't get hung up on trivial details - in fact you are in a better position than most if you understand these tests! Do your research into the company and fill out the test based not on what you think or feel, but on your conclusions on what the company is looking for - make yourself an ideal employee! but remember the MBTI is just one small factor that may help get you to interview, but is not the only factor..

    In fact - a bit of food for thought to end - I know someone from my last company who put down they enjoyed rally driving as a hobby on their CV - she ALWAYS got interviewed as every CV a recruiter sees has 'socialising', 'gym', pubs, cinema etc on it...

  5. From someone currently wading through dozens of online applications for a a handful of temp jobs at a Waterstone's branch... Did you see/fill in the part where it says "tell us in 300 words anything that would support your application"? Lots of applicants seem to miss this bit & it's a pretty automatic reject from this tired recruiter trying to differentiate between 5 English graduates (all with a passion for the post-colonial fiction on their uni reading lists). We reject loads of perfectly good applicants every day - for me it's spelling mistakes/typos that bug me, or too much talk about loving to read books with no mention of actually wanting to sell them.

  6. I find these tests to be a totally inaccurate means of establishing who is the "ideal" candidate for a certain role. the main reason I say this is that the 4 multiple choice answers one is given are all desirable traits and stating that one enjoys helping people "most" and enjoys being busy "least" is utterly ridiculous! One HAS to choose one " most" and one "least" and is therefore forced to decide on an answer which is inevitably an inaccurate reflection of one's character or personality. What a joke.

  7. I'm a bookseller - but in no way represent the views or policies of Waterstone's in the following. These views are my own...

    As a psychology graduate, I've learned to be very sceptical about multiple choice personality tests for all kinds of reasons I won't go into here and I'm not going to comment on their use in relation to Waterstone's, as I don't know how they're filtering etc. but these things are a big part of recruiting in general and many companies use them whether we like it or not.

    Having said that, I do take exception to comments (Pete, e.g) suggesting that being a graduate means you're overqualified in some way or that your qualifications mean you'll only hang around for a bit and bog off when you've got a 'better', not 'minimum wage' job. This is rubbish. A large proportion of booksellers have degrees (under and postgraduate) and many don't. Moreover, a very large proportion see bookselling as a creditable career, whether or not they aspire to branch management or head office positions. What we share in common is a love of books, knowledge about books and a passion for customer service.

    I'm sure Waterstone's are realistic about a certain level of transience in the workforce, but also probably don't necessarily think an armful of qualifications indicate it.

    What might be a problem for any recruiting company is the attitude that working for them (for below what graduates probably expect to earn) is actually beneath the applicant. I'm not suggesting this was your attitude Luke, but I'm highlighting it because it's implied in Pete's comments above.

    I know this was over a year ago and I appreciate your frustration at the time about not getting through the multiple choice thing, Luke, but I hope you're doing something you love now.